Spain is once again becoming a two-horse race, but the horse in second place is bearing the red-and-white colours of Atletico. Should Real fail to win the Madrid derby — or, still more unthinkable, lose it — then the champions could be out of the running with barely a third of the season gone.
Barcelona have taken 37 points from the 39 available, Real 26. No team has ever come back from an 11-point deficit in Spain.
After that Champions League hiccup against Celtic the Catalans seem to be going from strength to strength. Their opponents on Sunday were Levante. No easy meat at home, they have already beaten local rivals Valencia and only lost to Real thanks to a late goal. This time they held out till half-time and were then destroyed by a barrage of four goals that allowed Barcelona to stroll home for the last half-hour.
For those with an eye on Catalan politics, Barcelona finished the game with 11 homegrown players. The club is evidently plugging the independence line on the pitch as well as on local television channels.
Andres Iniesta was the architect, making three and scoring one, but yet again the lethal finish was supplied by Lionel Messi. His two goals at the start of the second half made it 19 in the league so far. Nine goals in November take him to 82 since the start of the year.
It may be that in some unknown land far beyond the reach of anoraks there are players who have scored more. However, history records only one: Gerd Muller, with 85 in 1972.
Enough superlatives have been written about Messi to last a lifetime. For those whose memories stretch back 40 years “Der Bomber” was the ultimate goalscorer.
“Simply the best,” according to a great documentary you can see on YouTube. No one believed that 85-goal landmark could ever be matched, yet the Argentinian is about to surpass it with games to spare, possibly against Benfica in a week’s time.
“The league is still not decided,” declared Barca manager Tito Vilanova on Sunday night. A sentence we are used to hearing in April rather than November, but he’s right because the phenomenal form of Atletico is the other big story of the season.
Barcelona have nine more points than this time last season under Pep Guardiola. Diego Simeone’s side are 18 points to the good.
Like Barcelona they also scored four on Sunday, crushing Sevilla in a first half when the visitors were reduced to ten men. Defensively, with Thibault Courtois in goal and Juanfran and Diego Godin patrolling the back, Simeone has turned them into one of the meanest sides in the league.
An eight-point lead over their great rivals is almost unknown territory for them. Their problem is they can’t match Barca in attack, especially away from home where they’ve scored only eight goals. Their main man Radamel Falcao has “only” 11 to his name so far, including five penalties. He’s no Messi, but his tireless work and his explosive finishing make him just as important for his team.
Historically Atleti have often played a “spoiling” role in the league, usually at Barca’s expense. Last season they lost 4-1 to Real, home and away. They’ve achieved a few draws, but their last win was back in October 1999 when Real had the unfortunately named Albano Bizzarri in goal and John Toshack was their manager.
Mourinho’s team suffered their third defeat of the season against Seville’s other team, Real Betis, on Saturday night. The players are said to be still licking their wounds from the post-match inquest.
“Mou is strong, he still wants to win things,” his assistant Aitor Karanka told journalists.
On past evidence Atleti should watch out, but they have as much desire to win and to continue their challenge to Barcelona. A real derby is in prospect.